Wanted: radical thinking

by Nigel Newby, Mitsubishi Electric, and George Kopp, COMsciences

As mobile device components become more power-efficient, they also become smaller, smarter and cheaper, making it easier for manufacturers to imbue greater functionality into the tiniest of packages. Anyone would agree that today's sleek, micro devices bear little resemblance to the older "chunky" devices that were deemed "mobile" when the wireless revolution began about 15 years ago.

But while there have been several attempts to shake up the basic form factor of the mobile device, the architecture has not really evolved; the need for a radio, speaker, microphone, battery and LCD to sit together have limited how far designers can go, and it requires a radical approach to break the formula. Bluetooth, WiFi and location-based services are all set to have just such a radical effect on the future device architecture. A tiny Bluetooth-enabled central unit, about the size of a mint box, could communicate with any other device you choose to carry: music player, games console, phone, electronic organizer and so on. The central unit, called the Personal Mobile Gateway (PMG), frees industrial designers from the typical constraints inherent in putting complex cellular technology into mobile handheld devices.

The PMG is certain to create great opportunities to not merely innovate but also bring appropriate solutions to our changing lifestyles and, most importantly, increase ease of use.

These design changes are not driven by technology alone. Evolving consumer tastes and preferences may play an even greater role. Product design and consumer research go hand in hand, since good product design begins with understanding the consumer. That means not only understanding the ways consumers intend to use these devices, but also understanding that a mobile device has to satisfy a highly personal set of expectations.

Mobile phones, and the advent of new communications devices of all sorts, are developing in three key directions. The first is to have one handset with absolutely everything in it, but this direction involves compromise. You can't leave your digital camera behind for the day if it's a permanent part of your phone.

The second direction is to use multiple devices for different occasions. This means consumers will have more than one handset and will swap them depending on their needs. Perhaps you'd have a combination pocket computer with cellphone capabilities for work and a slimmer, phone-only device for evenings.

Consumer market research helps designers focus complex requirements into a workable concept. Mitsubishi, for example, worked with COMsciences to develop a modular concept phone called Triton that is aimed at teens. The research showed that teens wanted a variety of features including SMS messaging, hands-free operation and the ability to play MP3s, a combination of functions best tackled by a modular approach. The final concept consisted of a pocket-sized base unit with a combination earphone-MP3 unit.

Two other concept devices developed by Mitsubishi in collaboration with a European design school demonstrated new devices for winter sports use. One ties around the waist and has control buttons on each end that twist, enabling users to turn them while wearing gloves, perhaps while riding a chair lift. Another device designed for ice climbers clips around the forearm, so it is readily accessible. Both devices provide weather reports, snow conditions and a continuous Global Positioning System (GPS) signal so that rescuers can locate people who have been lost.

Adding Bluetooth capability to this design concept brings us to the third possibility for the mass market the personal-area network, or PAN, scenario, with the PMG at its center. By freeing designers from having to worry about reserving space for the mechanical necessities of radio and chipsets, the PMG enables them to concentrate more on creating great style together with function and usability. This opens up a huge opportunity for new concepts in mobile devices that will be less expensive to design, produce and - ultimately, for consumers - to buy.

With this approach, industrial designers can focus on what they love to do - design. They can create opportunities, not barriers.

Nigel Newby is a product design and interface consultant for Mitsubishi Electric's mobile division in Paris. George Kopp is VP of Wireless Services at COMsciences, a Los Angeles-based market research and consulting firm.